UK National Ecosystem Assessment – more thoughts

(Colin Bell)

In a post last week I noted the publication of the UK’s National Ecosystem Assessment. There’s been a bit of controversy about the reporting, and I’ve now had a chance to read at least some of the document summary (in itself 87 pages…)

The authors wrote a letter to the Guardian complaining about its coverage of the report:

… it is important that its key messages are not lost in a debate over economic valuation, which is not what this report is about. Indeed, the NEA explicitly recognises that … our attitudes to nature need to recognise the shared social values (such as the song of the nightingale), the mental solace and other health benefits we derive from a walk in the bluebell woods, alongside the limited economic values that we might be able to estimate.

The problem is that the government press release on the DEFRA website does put things in very economic language, introducing things as:

The research forms the basis of a major new independent report – the UK National Ecosystem Assessment (UK NEA) – which reveals that nature is worth billions of pounds to the UK economy.

Now, the report most definitely does not couch things purely in economic terms. It sees three separate benefits from nature and “ecosystem services” – economic, health, and social, the last of these including cultural and even spiritual benefits. However, it then seeks to convert the others into monetary terms where possible, and there are plenty of such estimated figures in the report. So to me the DEFRA summary and Guardian coverage seem not unreasonable.

And, of course, we return to the point made by Damian Carrington, and explicitly in the report: if decisions are made primarily on economic grounds, which they seem to be, then it is better for nature to have a value on that measure than have zero value.

Reading the report also confirms my other concern: where nature has a value, it is only in terms of “ecosystem services” provided directly or indirectly to human beings. Indeed, this is made clear in the methodology (pp15-16 of the summary):

In order to assess the contribution of ecosystem services and
goods to human well-being, the UK NEA has developed an
innovative approach to valuing ecosystem services (Chapters
22–24 of the Technical Report) which takes into account the full
range of monetary (market and non-market) and non-monetary
values of ecosystem service flows to individuals and collectively
to society. Our approach to non-monetary benefits to people
from ecosystems was to describe additional well-being measures
as health and shared social values.

Can nature have inherent value under this definition? And how do you take account of things like biodiversity? The report certainly talks about more global effects, notably climate change, but that has a proxy measure in terms of CO2e emissions. I’m not sure how risk of species loss could be factored into the decision making process, but maybe that’s buried in the report in a place I haven’t found it yet.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “UK National Ecosystem Assessment – more thoughts

  1. Have you seen the Worldshift 20 initiative and their Declaration, November 2010, at http://worldshiftcouncil.org/the-ws-20-declaration/ with some excellent insights including the calculation of a Social Harmony Index?

    Quote from the Declaration: “We need to create a Social Harmony Index in every nation of the world. It is to consist of an environmental index, armament index, human rights index, honesty index, freedom index, democracy index, free flowing information index, government public affairs index, public security index, rich poor gap index, urban rural index, education popularization index, national physical condition index, creative ability index, social security index, as well as others. By integrating these data over decades we get the Social Harmony Index (SHI), a composite evaluation of every society and its rating in the world. By integrating the SHI of all countries, we get the World Social Harmony (WSHI) and can perceive its pattern of change year by year. These indices need to be evaluated, integrated and re-issued every year by a special organization attached to the United Nations or to the G-20. They will serve as a frame of reference for every country’s development and by spurring the rectification of deviations, enhance the impact of public opinion on the government. Every Nation should now be looking to intensify SHI competition and weaken GDP competition in the world.”

    The Council, made up of 20 influential world players from a good cross section of different religions and cultures write of the urgent need for spirituality to infuse all walks of life, including governance, with compassion essential towards all people and with emphasis on personal responsibility of all individuals – all dear to my own heart.

  2. Colin Bell

    No, they are new to me. Having had a look, I have to admit to having slightly mixed feelings. What they are proposing is definitely a positive way forward, in particular some kind of WSHI measure. I wouldn’t agree that nuclear weapons are the other big threat facing humanity at the minute though to be honest.

    My question would be why we need another group of public intellectuals making this kind of declaration when so many similar attempts in the past have had little or no effect. The “pro-sense” campaigning group suffers considerably compared to the “business as usual” group by being so fragmented. And, like here, there’s often no sense given of how we can get to there from here.

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